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BSO player fights the doldrums with #cellominute challenge

During the pandemic, Mickey Katz, a cellist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned 60-second compositions from composers he knows.
During the pandemic, Mickey Katz, a cellist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, commissioned 60-second compositions from composers he knows.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Before COVID-19, Boston Symphony Orchestra cellist Mickey Katz kept an Instagram profile populated mostly with meals he made and his rescue dog. Now it’s almost all cello, all the time. And with a little help from his friends, he’s introduced a handful of minute-long miniatures to the world.

During the earliest, deeply disorienting days of the pandemic, Katz stayed upright by challenging himself musically, he said in a phone interview last week. He started by posting one movement a day from the evergreen Bach cello suites. When he neared the end of the cycle, he posted a call on Facebook for composer friends to write 60-second pieces for cello.

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Why one minute? First off, 60 seconds is the limit for Instagram feed videos. Second, Katz hoped the format would spark people’s creativity. The first one, from composer Sid Richardson, was in hand just a few days later.

For Marti Epstein, the Boston-based composer who won a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, Katz’s #cellominute challenge provided a ladder out of the doldrums. When everything shut down, Epstein was in the middle of a handful of projects, and also struggling with the abrupt shift to teaching remotely at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. “I could barely remember my name, let alone have any kind of creative energy,” she remembered.

But Katz’s challenge piqued her interest, and more importantly, it sounded feasible. “Just the thought of biting off something tiny, instead of writing a big, long piece," she said. "And writing something for such a beautiful player.” Once she completed “Wisp,” her miniature for Katz, she felt like the blockage was cleared. “That was the key, definitely.”

Katz also received pieces from composers including Nico Muhly, Richard Pantcheff, Andrew List, and BSO bassist Lawrence Wolfe. For this year’s Tanglewood Online festival, he recorded six miniatures in the Linde Center for Music and Learning’s Studio E; these performances will be reprised for the BSO Encore Recital posting online this Thursday.

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Katz suddenly finds himself busy again at Symphony Hall, where BSO players returned this week to record music for more digital offerings, but he’s not done with #cellominute. “There’s still a few I didn’t get to,” Katz said of the submissions. “They’re sitting here.” And in the event that we have to hunker down again, these little compositions are sure to lift his spirits — and listeners’ too.

Mickey Katz’s cello miniatures are available Oct. 29-Nov. 19. www.bso.org

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.